We confess: Before our very first voyage aboard a cruise ship we didn’t think much of seagoing vacations. A few hours in a port is no way to experience a country, we surmised, and cruises seemed to be a fairly pedestrian way to explore the world’s wonders. A gluttonous emphasis on food, drink and shopping appeared to override any notion of culture, history or scenery that so many destinations offer.
Aunt Lucille brought the point home when we asked where she went on her Caribbean cruise. She couldn’t name the ports she had visited, but she extolled the virtues of the ship’s buffet restaurant—along with bingo sessions, drink specials and Macarena parties.
What a difference a few years—and a few dozen cruises—makes.
Although we still have some grievances, we always look forward to packing our bags and boarding, no matter which cruise line we’re sailing. Indulge us, for a moment, while we shake our pom-poms and celebrate our favorite parts of cruise vacations.
Throughout the industry we continue to be impressed by the overall quality of personalized service we encounter on a typical cruise. Usually representing a veritable seagoing United Nations, there is no one that keeps us happier on a cruise than the ship’s frontline crew—that is, the room attendants, waiters and bartenders that look after guests on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. We enjoy getting to know them, hearing the stories of where they come from, and we love the pride so many of them take in their profession, whether it’s their first contract or their tenth.
This isn’t to say we haven’t had bad service or an “off” encounter—it seems to happen at least once on pretty much every cruise we’ve been on. Yes, the odd mildew spot in our cabin gets missed, or a bartender at the tail end of a long day might be gruff, but these are always the exception. The vast majority of crewmembers go out of their way to make sure our cruise experience is memorable in the best way.
We enjoy being able to stretch our taste buds…
Not all restaurants at sea aspire to highfalutin gastronomy, but on most cruise lines we are delighted by the broad range of foods available in the main dining room. While traditional comfort foods are always represented on the menu, adventurous palates are also rewarded more often these days. We love being able to try new cuisines or unusual ingredients—risk-free. Cruise ships allow us to explore beyond our usual comfort zone, be it lamb chops, escargots, frogs’ legs, or exotic Indian vegetarian offerings.
We also appreciate that a demand for healthier foods has invaded the industry. Most cruise lines actively promote lighter fare on the daily menus in the main dining room, going as far as to list calorie counts.
…As well as stretching our legs
Normally at home we have to work to stay trim. On ships, we’re really under the gun after gorging ourselves on rich foods every day. Maintaining any kind of svelte figure would be a real challenge were it not for the usually excellent gyms on ships both large and small. Although there’s an add-on for most of the yoga and Pilates classes, we find the up-charge to be worth it—stepping in for the free morning stretching session may not burn much fat but it’s a great way to start our day.
Fitness options don’t end at the gym. A basketball court is fairly standard, and most ships have a jogging track (though length varies considerably). The latest trend is Zumba classes, often conducted poolside. Bigger, newer vessels of some lines have rock-climbing walls, wave machines for surfing, ice-skating rinks—we try ‘em all.
When it comes to onboard entertainment, we can’t think of a land-based resort that offers the diversity, quantity, and quality available on the typical cruise ship. From ice-skating shows to Broadway musicals that reach touring-show standards, large ships avail diversions to keep cruisers enthralled night after night. While the entertainment offerings on mid-sized ships tend to be more targeted, from string quartets to Motown reviews, we’ll bet most cruisers will find a comfortable landing each evening.
Cruise ships are a great value vacation
Relative to other types of vacations, cruises continue to offer good bang for your buck. If you take airfare out of the equation, how many resorts can deliver solid meals, nightly entertainment, a daily change of scenery, and a comfy bed to sleep in for not much more than $100 a night per person? OK, that number is toward the low end of the pricing spectrum, but it’s the type of fare we see all the time, especially off-season. Vacationers who are flexible with itineraries and travel dates and don’t mind sleeping in an inside cabin can do even better.
Although cruises were once considered a relatively “all-inclusive” type of product, the list of onboard inclusions has certainly shrunk (except for some of the luxury lines). From specialty restaurants to bridge tours, and zip lines to cappuccinos, most ships offer ample opportunities for us to pad the checkout bill. To minimize that creeping, nickel-and-dimed feeling, read our cruise reviews to get a sense of the onboard charges—and remember that, for the most part, they’re all optional add-ons.
There’s a perfect ship for every traveler
We continue to be amazed at the number of travelers who say, “cruises aren’t for me.” But there are plenty of kinds of cruises, from monster ships with countless onboard activities and diversions, to intimate vessels meant for a relaxing ride and plenty of stops at charming ports. There’s a ship to match most dream vacations.
The cruise industry has grown over the last few decades, carrying more than 21 million passengers last year, about two-thirds of whom were Americans. But as large as the industry is, it could never thrive as a monolithic one-size-fits-all business. There are ships that are ideal for families, with ample diversions for children and teens, and others that are designed for adults. On some cruise lines, conservative entertainment caters to an older crowd, while others put the spotlight on edgy comedians and the latest DJ spins. Some companies put the itinerary front and center, traveling to unusual ports or remote regions, while others focus inwards, emphasizing onboard shopping and dining. It’s a diverse industry, and pays to know the differences between the major players.
Cruise ships make a big world a little more accessible
Some cruising destinations are difficult or more costly to tour independently. On a ship, places like Alaska, the fjords of Norway and even some islands of the Mediterranean are more accessible on a cruise ship. When it comes to hotel accommodations and meals, Bermuda is one of the world’s priciest tropical destinations, but when your cruise from the east coast stops by for a few days, it’s much more affordable.
Plus, many of us simply don’t have the time to explore a place in-depth. A seven-day cruise to Alaska typically visits three ports along with a couple hours in the presence of a scenic glacier. Trying to cover the same agenda on a land tour would require at least 10 or 12 days, in addition to requiring a lot more logistical planning.
What are your favorite aspects of cruising?